Spend Spend Spend is a biography by Viv Nicholson and was published in 1978. In 1961 Nicholson and her husband Keith were living with their three children in a terraced house in Castleford, Yorkshire, mainly on an apprentice miner's wage of £7 a week. She then hit the jackpot - a win on the football pools that netted over £150,000 (about £3 million in today's money apparently). Asked what she was going to do with the money by the press, the brassy Nicholson replied that she was going to 'Spend, spend, spend!' And she did. Within four years the money was gone and Keith had died in a crash behind the wheel of his Jaguar. Nicholson went through a succession of husbands who were all attracted by money that didn't really exist anymore, briefly hobnobbed with a few celebrities like Joan Collins, relocated to Malta, got deported from Malta, got taken to the cleaners by the taxman, ended up singing in a nightclub for peanuts (much to her irritation the owners would insist on her performing Big Spender!) and had a spell in a mental hospital. Spend Spend Spend is an extraordinary tale of fast cars, fast living, drink, excess and death. It's like a Tesco Value Dallas or Dynasty. More than anything though it's a darkly comic, poignant and entertaining reminder that the old cliche is true. Money doesn't always buy you happiness.
I first became aware of Viv Nicholson when I saw a picture of her featured as a cover star on a single by The Smiths called Barbarism Begins at Home. Nicholson is standing rather defiantly hands on hips at a grim industrial pithead in Yorkshire wearing a tiny woollen mini-dress and boots and has a suitcase on the floor next to her. It's a very iconic and arresting image and makes you eager to find out who this woman was and why she is standing in a coal mine with a suitcase dressed like that. She was in fact about to go to Malta on a spending spree and presumably taking a last look at the world she was about (or so she hoped) to leave behind. I believe that these days lottery winners are personally advised and looked after by the lottery company after their wins to help them cope but in those days pools winners were just left to it according to Spend, Spend, Spend. Nicholson was not equipped at all to deal with her new circumstances and her life soon descended into an eccentric crackpot world of drama and mayhem. She comes out of the book as a memorable character. An indomitable trooper with a deadpan sense of humour and an eccentric decency who went from rags to riches to rags again but somehow still managed to keep her held high and survive everything that was thrown her way.
She was harshly treated by the press at the time who painted her as immoral and selfish but you come out of the book with a great deal of sympathy for Nicholson. She eventually lost everything - including her brief fame - but she was just an ordinary working class housewife and factory worker who wanted a better life. She believes her social disadvantages meant that she wasn't prepared for life as a rich person and so it all went wrong in the end. Before the pools win, Nicholson worked in a cake factory from time to time but even added to her husband's wages their household budget was barely enough to feed a family with three children. She says she often went without food herself some days so the others would have enough to eat. There are some absorbingly melodramatic accounts of Nicholson's early life in the book. There were seven children and her mother used to sew tea, soap and sugar into the mattress to stop her father selling them for beer money. It was an incredibly threadbare existence but described with a lot of humour at times. The radio is fixed high up on the wall so everyone has to stand on the chairs to listen to it! Her father never sits at the kitchen table and eats his dinner standing up at the mantlepiece! It's like that Alan Bennett quote about every family having a secret and the secret is that they are not like other families.
Nicholson won £152,300, 18 shillings and eight pence on the pools and remembers exactly what she did that night. She and her husband went into town on the bus and had two halves of bitter. It hadn't completely sunk in that they were now rich beyond their wildest dreams. I think the moments of deadpan humour in the book are often very enjoyable. A tax inspector who visits Nicholson when her husband has died and the money is disappearing fast is greeted by Viv with a 12-bore shotgun. He decides to beat a hasty retreat and phone her solicitor to explain the situation. 'If she's got a gun, and she's threatening to shoot you, my professional advice to you is to go away until she cools off and approach her in another way,' calmly replies the solicitor in very dry fashion! Nicholson claimed that by the mid-seventies she couldn't even afford to bury her fourth husband. Viv's first husband Keith had died in a car crash when he was 27. By then most of the money had been spent and the taxman soon arrived on the scene to take the rest. Nicholson says that when she had the money they used to buy a new car every few months but she never quite learned how to drive properly. They bought a nice bungalow but she was forever driving her car into the neighbours gardens by accident!
Spend Spend Spend is book that deserves its minor cult status and remains an entertaining read. After you've read the book you feel like you wouldn't mind having a cup of tea with Viv Nicholson and talking about her life. I bought this for next to nothing ages ago but at the time of writing even used copies seem to be going for £20 for some reason. It's worth reading but I would look around for a much better deal than that.